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Raleigh Little Theatre’s current show, Spring Awakening, opened Friday night and immediately started challenging its audience. In the first show that he has directed for Raleigh Little Theatre, C. Glen Matthews presented a raw, vulnerable look at teenagers exploring newfound sexuality and some of life’s harsh realities. From the first scene, consisting of the heroine trying to have “The Talk” with her mother, to the harrowing ending of the show, Spring Awakening is meant for mature audiences and is not meant to be easy to watch.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s play, Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in 2006, with music by Duncan Sheik and dialogue and lyrics by Steven Sater. The original play was banned in Germany, where the play is set, because the 1891 teenagers were exploring mature content in an unapologetically visceral plot. Artistic Director Charles Phaneuf warned audiences at the beginning of the show that it “presents some challenging material,” but thanked everyone for coming just the same. Raleigh Little Theatre provides a reference to Spring Awakening’s “Parent’s Guide” page that features interviews with parents and their children who attended the Broadway show and have offered advice.
The cast was up to the challenge of presenting this emotionally charged musical and the acting was phenomenal, from professional and high school actors alike. Leads Brishelle Miller (Wendla) and Adam Keller (Melchior) portrayed an innocent but conflicted love that was awkward and ignorant, but made beautiful by such songs as “Word of Your Body” and “I Believe.” Their exploration of their relationship, of love, and of rushing hormones was both uncomfortable and beautiful to watch, especially set amongst Thomas Mauney’s gorgeous set and lighting design. At first the set seemed cluttered; old: cubes full of toys, clothes, and furniture covered the stage, and most of the pieces looked heavy and boxy. However, the motion of the set and the abstract ways it represented home, school, the woods, or the street was beguilingly smooth, nimble, and utilitarian.
Apart from a few sound issues that may have been caused by the multitude of handheld microphones passed around onstage in addition to the headset microphones on almost every actor, the balance and amplification was very good. The orchestra, set upstage of all the action, added to the show with their energy and synchronicity, and, with the exception of a few intonation issues at the beginning, were spot-on. Several actors really stood out and I look forward to the cast becoming more comfortable onstage as the production continues so they can all sing with such high energy. Hannah Slaughter (Martha) in particular had beautiful projection and expression in “The Dark I Know Well.”
It is hard to cast a show such as Spring Awakening; several of the actors, like Parker Perry (Hanschen/Dieter) and Graham Gall (Ensemble) are sophomores in high school, while others, like Betsy Henderson (Adult Women) and Sarah Lynn Winter (Ilse), are much more experienced. The male parts are especially tricky because the leads have lower voice parts than the others, but everyone has soaring high solos somewhere in the show. The best part of this show was seeing the younger singers rise to the challenge and meet the more experienced singers at their level. Some hidden talents came from Matthew Reda (Georg/Reinhold) and Timothy Malboeuf (Ernst/Ulbrecht), who had difficult characters to convey and powerful solo phrases in “Touch Me” and “Word of Your Body (Reprise),” respectively.
The first act of the show was hilariously inappropriate and shocking, but the second was simply stunning. Between Moritz’s decisive scene at the beginning of Act Two and his reappearance at the end of the show, actor Nicholas Alexander Polonio presented a shockingly conflicted character for such a young actor. Polonio and Keller both were stuck with the challenge of presenting emotionally conflicted characters while still singing coherently. Personally, I would have liked to hear them without any emotional affectations to their voices so they could just sing.
The ending of the show, “Purple Summer,” was fantastic – the icing on the cake of a great opening night. All the cast in modern clothing drove home the idea of coming together, communicating, and enjoying life for what it is. After concluding the show with dazzling control of harmony and blend, the cast shared one group bow and left the audience in tears both sorrowful and joyous. Delivered with great panache, the effect of this show was one of passion, forewarning, and, most of all, love.
Spring Awakening continues through Sunday, October 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.